« Discussion

Should Book Editors Be Involved in Social Media Engagement?

By Edward Nawotka, Editor-in-Chief

In today’s feature story netizeen’s CEO Jonathan Harris notes that one of the priorities for its company is “let[ting] editorial teams connect with their audiences.” This relationship — the reader-editor relationship — is one he views as not only underexploited, but also perhaps the best long-term solution for sustaining magazine readership and relevance.

As our contributor Alex Mutter writes: “Through netizeen’s social features, Harris imagines that editors could transform the relationship between editors and readers from a one-to-many relationship into a plethora of one-on-one relationships. Proactive editorial teams could make their magazines not only containers of content, but also hubs around which people can connect. And it is those teams, Harris believes, who will have the greatest longevity.”

Of course, this all raises a simple question: should editors really be more involved in social media engagement with readers? What’s the benefit?

Editors tend to function in the background. While the envision, commission and produce content for a magazine, website or book, their job is the behind-the-scenes grind shaping the content. But the author is the true star. While an editor often has insight into the content — deciding what stays in, what comes out, and helping to shape the voice — the author is the ultimate authority.

While the editor is likely to have plenty to say, the editor is representative of the overall point of view of the publication or brand. This works better with magazines than publishers, which tend to have more transparent or anonymous brands.

What then, ultimately, can a book editor lend to the social media conversation? They are not likely to raise questions about the works for which they are responsible or challenge their own author’s assertions. Perhaps they can provide a context for why a book was published in the first place and argue for its relevance. But, at the end of the day, isn’t this largely a function of public relations?

Certainly editors working their social media network can help provide more of a “face” for publishers, but whether or not they should commit time to engaging directly with readers is debatable.

Increasingly, the cry has been raised the “publishers don’t do enough to engage readers.” But don’t editors in particular have enough to do already? After all, isn’t it presumed that most editors are overworked already, with little time to do the very job their title suggests, you know, actually editing?

Or is this call for more “social engagement” simply further evidence that the job of editor, like so much of the business, become closer to that of a sales and marketing executive, or as I argued earlier, banker. rather than gatekeepers and culture cognoscenti?

Let us know what you think in the comments.

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  1. Posted December 10, 2012 at 6:08 am | Permalink

    The value of having editors engage with social media isn’t debatable for us. It is a cornerstone of our business set up and is driving awareness of our books and our authors, helping to build conversation and lead directly to sales to retail partners, librarians and consumers.

    The idea that the conversation about books should confined to one department – be it publicity, marketing or the sectioned-off “digital” department – is old fashioned and companies following that approach miss out on capitalising on its biggest asset: it’s employees.

    We are quite successfully blurring the lines between departments. Editorial and marketing working very closely together, especially on digital projects. In fact, we have one employee who is split between editorial and marketing to help create and manage content for both departments. It means we can all work together to build ideas and solve problems, with no “not my problem” attitudes.

    Editorial should not be stuck in a back room. Just as they are part of each of the processes of bringing a book to market (…providing content for press releases, contributing ideas for marketing plans, providing unique anecdotes for sales pitches…), they should also have a hand in talking about their books with people who love them (or might love them if they read them).

    This is no way takes away from the author’s voice with their readers — in fact, we are finding that it helps many authors find a platform without having to build it all from scratch themselves. Nor does it take away from the curating role of the editor — editors can speak about books as well as they can read them.

    All employees of a publishing company have something to offer readers: expertise, opinions, a laugh, and each of these moments builds the one thing all publishers crave: word of mouth promotion for their content.

    The argument that people already have too much to do is not a useful one. There is no one in publishing that couldn’t fill their time with other things but, for us, talking to readers is a top priority, which is why you’ll find everyone from our MD down to our interns blogging on our daily blog or talking to people on Twitter.

    Sara O’Connor
    Editorial Director, Print & Digital
    Hot Key Books

  2. Posted December 10, 2012 at 7:40 am | Permalink

    There’s an overabundance of time intensive or expensive initiatives that stem from the industry assuming what reader’s issues are and coming up with solutions to solve those issues.

    We should ask first of every effort – does this problem a problem the reader has or is this publishing trying to solve publishing’s problems.

    So I’d ask what problem does the reader have that editors spending their time on Twitter, FB and Pinterest solve?

  3. Posted December 10, 2012 at 9:22 am | Permalink


    So you’re saying that all editors need to have their noses to the grindstone for the entire time they’re in the office, without any contact to the rest of the world in which they operate.

    This is one of the viewpoints that has caused so many presses to have to either merge or shut down. It’s short sighted, and to be perfectly honest, a little offensive.

    I can’t agree more with every point that Sara O’Connor has said, and that isn’t simply because ‘Hot Key Books’ is a business that I hold in an incredibly high esteem.

    I think it should also be touched upon that ‘allowing’ editors to interact with readers on twitter and suchlike doesn’t just potentially help the authors (for the reasons that Sara mentioned above), but also that it helps the business itself. Transparency and the ‘human’ element of publishing is largely lacking in the industry, but I know a number of people who will buy a book from Inspired Quill simply because IQ published it (the same happens, I imagine, with Hot Key Books), because time is taken for engagement.

    Publishing isn’t like many other businesses. It isn’t always about being so cold as to ‘solve problems’. A huge component is the emotional side of the industry. Reading is a hugely personal and emotional pastime – our readers invest a lot. Surely the least we could do is to take the ten seconds to engage with them when they ask a question. Being a business ‘with a face’ is so very important to gain reader loyalty, too.

    This isn’t to say that an editor should spend more time on social media than on doing their ‘actual job’, of course. But it’s about working smartly, instead of taking an hour to do something that could only take five minutes.

    I would like to draw particular attention to Sara’s last two paragraphs. I couldn’t say it better myself, so I’m going to finish here.

    Sara-Jayne Slack
    Managing Director,
    Inspired Quill

    P.S. “While the envision, commission” should be “While THEY envision, commission”

  4. Posted December 10, 2012 at 10:32 am | Permalink

    I don’t think editors have ever been, as Ms. O’Connor and Ms. Slack suggest, confined to back rooms and forbidden any contact with the outside world. There have always been some editors who also wrote, editors who did the pre-internet equivalent of social media as much as was then possible–they spoke on radio and TV when there was a program about books or writing, they went to conferences where the public (usually, admittedly, the “I want to get published” public) could hear them speak and talk with them directly. That was considered part of their working life, and it still is. Every editor I’ve had already connected with readers beyond just editing books before the advent of social media online. They still do.

    For both writers and editors, though, forcing engagement in social media adds to their workload: they are still expected to go to conferences and conventions, still expected to answer reader questions that arrive in the mail (or, in the case of my editors, by way of their writers–I pass on to my editor questions that involve, for instance, a book whose three middle chapters were missing and replaced by three chapters of a different book, set in upside down.) They are already “working smart” and having to read manuscripts on unpaid time–on the subway, at home.

    As a writer, I maintain multiple websites and social media contacts, from Twitter to genre-specific discussion forums. Before that started, all my writing time was spent working on the books and stories themselves: it was productive. Now, as all full-time writers I know agree, the time spent engaging in social media comes from my writing time…and makes finishing a book a year harder. Does the reader enjoy a sense of personal connection? Sure. (Some of them enjoy it too much–is there a female writer who has not had a stalker problem?) Does this maybe sell more books? Yes, I’m certain it does. But the demand (from my publisher as well as my fans) to add another outlet, write another blog post, do a blog tour, comment on high-traffic blogs, and so on means more time away from the writing itself–the real writing, the stories and books. There’s only so much creative energy available each day; there’s only so much I can write in a day and if I spend a thousand words on one thing, there’s going to be a thousand less of another. I enjoy communicating directly with readers–but enjoy it or not, there’s only so much I can do before I’m impeding the work already contracted. Social media is a time sink. There are more people on the other end and if you engage personally with each one (which is what they want) you find yourself writing more and more and more every day. (That’s why Neil Gaiman cut himself off email, he said, in that wonderful graduation speech. “I had become someone who answered email…”)

    I’m sure Ms. O’Connor and Ms. Slack will think it’s selfish of writers to want their editors to have more time, not less, to do the careful editing of books that the books actually need…without reaching exhaustion and burnout. I have been fortunate to have excellent editors among several publishers, and every one of them has improved a book by seeing what the writer was too close to the project to see. Several of them did reach the burnout point shortly after being required to add extensive social media activity to their already crowded schedules. That was a loss to publishing–excellent editors whose work might have improved future books as it already had many before. I’m not inside their heads and cannot say if that was the final straw, or if it was something else, or if the escalation of duties and time demanded had been more gradual. It’s just my observation. But it’s clear to me, from the similar demands being placed on me, that extensive involvement with internet activity (such as commenting on a blog post like this one) takes time away from writing, no matter how I squeeze the other (nourishing to creativity) activities of my life. Editors are also human; mine were already busy and working outside office hours before.

    Ms. Slack is correct in saying that publishing involves emotion as well as “solving problems,” but fails to see that answering a reader’s direct question is solving a problem for that reader. And answering a reader’s question is not (except over the phone or perhaps face to face at a conference) a ten-second process. Writing a blog post in ten seconds? I don’t think so. Even Twitter takes me more than that per tweet. Neither editors nor writers should have to add an hour a day of social media to their lives. If they want to give up sleep, a meal with family, whatever else they were doing in that hour…that’s their business. But to insist on it? No.

  5. Posted December 10, 2012 at 3:45 pm | Permalink

    There is no debate that an editor’s primary job is the acquisition and development of authorial talent. But in today’s publishing landscape, the words “acquisition” and “development” imply a different set of tasks than what might be considered as traditional editorial work. In the digital age, “acquisition” can mean reading self-published titles on Amazon or subscribing to and participating in community writing websites such as WritersCafe or Figment. Moreover, “development” entails selecting intelligent BISACs for an author’s books or communicating with bloggers and established authors to track down reviews and blurbs for a new title. With so many books being published and so much effort expended on discoverability, it seems like a total loss if an editor is not at least somewhat publicly outspoken about the books and projects they’re working on. They can be a huge resource for fans and readers to follow. They can drive a conversation. And, yes, they can absolutely help people find the books that they want to read.

  6. Edward Nawotka
    Posted December 10, 2012 at 9:15 pm | Permalink

    It’s interesting to read some of these comments as it appears that people merely read the headline and responded, rather than actually reading the article itself. Typical social media driven behavior.

    I don’t think that an editor taking time from their day to post a Tweet or Facebook about what they are reading, what intrigues them as a potential story, or something related to the literary production process necessarily detracts from their job—quite the contrary. But I also think that as with most editors their priority should be on producing the best “core” work: acquiring, developing and, eventually, producing the best books possible. This post was about editors, not marketing departments.

    How social media contributes to that depends on the individual editor, but I suspect for most it is at best a harmless positive distraction rather than a serious source of insight or inspiration.

    Whether that should be part of the nine-to-five? I’m not confident it should be. For example, I enjoy reading @paulbogaards– the Twitter feed of Knopf’s PR and Marketing director, but the majority of the Tweets are satire or about his wanting a drink at the end of the day. It’s funny stuff, but does it contribute to my overall understanding of the publishing industry or offer any real dish on Knopf itself. No.

    Ditto for many, if not most, of the Twitter streams coming out of publishing houses, which are, let’s be blunt here, largely marketing for their titles.

    There is nothing wrong with that, so long as it comes out of the marketing department and is a function of tweeting individual’s job.

    I suspect there’s a lot of wishful thinking about there about the overall impact of social media, which has become saturated with…what exactly? It’s a grab bag, 99.9% of it totally ephemeral.

    Ironically, I just clicked on @paulbogaards and his last tweet read: “Officially over social media. Because it is a clusterf***”

    It’s not a lack of social media engagement or reader interaction that has hurt publishing, it’s a lack of engaging readers with good, better and great books that they want to buy and read. That should always be the priority, full stop.

  7. Posted December 11, 2012 at 5:13 am | Permalink

    There is more to editors’ use of social media than engaging with readers to drive awareness of books and authors, and increase sales. In 2011, I carried out a survey of how book editors use social media and the responses varied from the biggest ‘waste of time and brain space’ to a useful professional tool. Indeed, the value of social media engagement depends on how the various platforms are used. They can be a huge distraction. But when strategically used, they can be a source of insight and news (not surprisingly, I have come across this post via Twitter). Social media can also be used for networking and peer support, promoting the value of editing, increasing editors’ profiles and so on. If you are interested in the survey results see http://dx.doi.org/10.3998/3336451.0015.103

  8. Posted December 13, 2012 at 7:52 am | Permalink

    Editors can be very helpful at engaging readers, pushing forward the goals of authors. How? Quite simple. Costs nothing. And they are in the presence of book buyers already.

    All they have to do is work the line at a book signing. If they are just standing in a corner, tapping their feet impatiently waiting to go to dinner, they are a disservice in this new world.

    They should be talking to the people buying the book. Helping to get them to write reviews, share with their friends, using them as experts in all areas they need to promote. Readers aren’t the enemy. Smiles go a long way to make book buyers feel appreciated rather than just a herd of people who might want to talk about that awful topic–getting published.

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